Twitter's Olympic-NBC fail and the myth of free speech

You thought that online speech online was free and unfettered? Think again.

WASHINGTON, August 1, 2012 — When Twitter suspended the account of Guy Adams, journalist for the U.K.’s Independent newspaper, it demonstrated a complete misunderstanding of its own product. Within hours, tweets attacking Twitter and NBC for the suspension hit the blogosphere, and Twitter was finally forced to apologize and back down.

Adams’ offense? In addition to making numerous sarcastic comments about NBC, which has partnered with Twitter to provide social media coverage of the Olympics, he tweeted the publicly available corporate email address of NBC’s president for Olympic coverage, Gary Zenkel. Twitter claimed that this violated their guidelines but its move against Adams seemed motivated by business considerations, its concern for its own rules dominated by politics.

Twitter seems unprepared for the firestorm it ignited. A company that has helped define social media seems not to have understood the power of social media. On the other hand, users of social media themselves seem to misunderstand what they’re using.

The fury of the response to Twitter revolves around the charge of censorship. Twitter admitted to informing NBC of the content of Adams’ tweets so that NBC could request that the company take action against him. Its General Counsel Alex Macgillivray said in a blog post, “We should not and cannot be in the business of proactively monitoring and flagging content, no matter who the user is. We want to apologize for the part of this story that we did mess up.”

Facebook and Google apparently monitor and control content. Facebook accounts have been shut down for political content, according to some users, and Google has been accused of shutting down blogs for adult content. In both cases there have been complaints that the company has been unresponsive to requests for clarification of the rules and unwilling to restore content when the rules aren’t clearly defined.

The comment management system used by this publication, Disqus, has likewise been denounced as a tool of censorship. Publications that use Disqus engage in comment moderation, occasionally removing or editing comments and even banning certain users. 

The misunderstanding of media users is that there has ever been a time in which people could write whatever they wanted and have it published whenever they pleased. Fifty years ago, newspapers regularly limited letters to the editor to maximum lengths and reserved the right not to publish them at all. It took some effort to type a letter and mail it, the address and name of the writer were usually required, and it might take several days for the letter to be published, if it was ever published at all. 

If you didn’t want to work through a newspaper, you could always publish your views on your own. That required a mimeograph or a copy machine, you had to distribute your rag on your own, and it was expensive. 

Now you can publish your opinion on just about anything at a marginal cost approaching zero. It costs nothing but a few minutes of time to create a blog, and you can post to Twitter or Facebook as soon as the thought hits you. Writing comments to an article can be done in near anonymity, and they’re much easier to compose electronically than on a typewriter. The time from thought to publication has dropped to seconds.

All of this gives us the illusion of unfettered free expression, and in truth, we’re closer to that ideal than we have ever been. But it remains an ideal; the reality is something else.

Publications like the Washington Times Communities have an interest in maintaining an environment that is relatively non-hostile for people who want to comment. We don’t want writers belittling each other, since that will tend to suppress participation. We regularly delete abusive comments. We own this site, and we have the right to set guidelines on content. 

Most readers understand that, but people are much less understanding of intrusion into their Facebook, Google and Twitter accounts. They feel a sense of ownership, and there’s the sense the property rights have been violated when your Facebook account disappears. Twitter’s suspension of Adams’ account was clearly stupid, especially since it was so transparently not to protect anyone’s privacy or safety, but only to further Twitter’s business arrangement with NBC to cover the Olympics. But social media platform owners do have an interest in regulating content, even if only very lightly and very, very carefully.

There are legal risks to allowing users to publish private information about others. There are legal risks to allowing your platform being used to launch attacks on private individuals. There are legal risks to allowing your platform to host criminal activity. No platform can allow kiddie porn. 

However, outside of very narrowly, very well-defined restrictions, we should have the right to expect that no one will censor our content, even as we recognize that the owners of a site can censor content for any reason they please. The First Amendment, after all, applies to government restrictions on political speech, not a publisher’s right to choose content or Facebook’s right to decide what kind of site it will be. If Twitter and Facebook are going to control content on the basis of politics, though, they should tell users that and then expect them to go elsewhere if they don’t like it. 

There is no such thing as truly free speech - speech without money cost, speech without restriction, speech without consequences - anywhere. But Twitter exposed itself as a lie when it suspended Guy Adams. The problem isn’t the censorship, but the lie and the hypocrisy. Twitter has some damage control to do.

 

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La., where he went to take a break from working in Moscow and Washington. But he fell in love with the town and with the professor of Romance languages, so there he stayed. Now he teaches, annoys his children, and makes jalapeno lemonadeHe tweets, hangs out on Facebook, and has a blog he totally neglects at pichtblog.blogspot.com.

 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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